It is the year 2000-and full employment, material abundance and social harmony can be found everywhere. This is the America to which Julian West, a young Bostonian, awakens after more than a century of sleep. West’s initial sense of wonder, his gradual acceptance of the new order and a new love, and Bellamy’s wonderful prophetic inventions – electric lighting, shopping malls, credit cards, electronic broadcasting – ensured the mass popularity of this 1888 novel. But however rich in fantasy and romance, Looking Backward is a passionate attack on the social ills of nineteenth-century industrialism and a plea for social reform and moral renewal.
I may have read this book in college, when it was still the 1990s, but the year 2000 was coming up fast. I took a class on Utopian Literature, and I’m pretty sure this was on the syllabus. We read some interesting work for that class, and I wish I still had the reading list, but since there’ve been 25 years and a 2,000-mile move between then and now, it’s not surprising that I don’t have it anymore.
If we did read it, I don’t think I remember anything about it. It’s always possible, though, that one of the “I know I read that somewhere” fragments in my brain will be found inside.
The Classics Club have issued their latest challenge for another Classics Club Spin! Did I complete my challenge for the last spin? No, I did not. Am I going to try again? Yes, I am. Am I using the same list as last time except for the book that I was supposed to read for June? Again, yes, I am.
The idea is for members to select 20 books from their list of 50 classics which they have challenged themselves to read within five years, then read the selected book before 30 September 2020.
My Spin list:
Iliad by Homer, translated by Caroline Alexander
Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson
Aenid by Virgil, translated by Sarah Ruden
Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy Sayers
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
Tales from Shakespeare by Charles & Mary Lamb
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johnn D. Wyss
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Devil’s Pool by George Sand
Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Villette by Charlotte Brontë
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us. His grey eyes shone and twinkled, and his usually pale face was flushed and animated.
Chapter 1: Introduction
So begins Wells’s classic “scientific romance”, published serially in The New Review in 1895 (and in revised novella editions after that). Over drinks with some gentlemen friends, including the narrator, the unnamed adventurer shares his theories on the nature of time as a fourth dimension in which one can travel. His friends are skeptical, even after seeing a demonstration using a model he has constructed.
For my own part, I was particularly preoccupied with the trick of the model. That I remember discussing with the Medical Man, whom I met on Friday at the Linnaean. He said he had seen a similar thing at Tübingen, and laid considerable stress on the blowing-out of the candle. But how he trick was done he could not explain.
Chapter 3: The Time Traveller Returns
A week later, the narrator is again at the Time Traveller’s home for another dinner party. The Time Traveller appears after his guests have arrived, and the details of his adventure form the main narrative. He has gone hundreds of thousands of years into the future, where he encountered the Eloi and the Morlocks, apparently the two strains of humanity left at that time.
The Eloi are small, delicate, and child-like. They spend their days playing in the sunshine, picking flowers, and eating fruit. They do no work, the genders appear nearly identical, and there is little difference between the children and the adults. They sleep in groups in large structures. They seem to be unafraid, in the way of those who have never encountered anything of which to be afraid.
“Seem to be unafraid,” because the Time Traveller eventually learns that the Eloi are scared of the dark. They stay away from shadows and refuse to venture out at night. After nightfall, the Morlocks – pale, large-eyed, and ape-like – come out their underground tunnels, and they are on the hunt.
Now, indeed, I seemed in a worse case than before. Hitherto, except during my night’s anguish at the loss of the Time Machine, I had felt a sustaining hope of ultimate escape, but that hope was staggered by these new discoveries. Hitherto I had merely thought myself impeded by the childish simplicity of the little people, and by some unknown forces which I had only to understand to overcome; but there was an altogether new element in the sickening quality of the Morlocks — a something inhuman and malign. Instinctively I loathed them.
Chapter 10: When the Night Came
My first encounter with The Time Machine was with a Moby Classics illustrated abridged edition when I was in elementary school. I mostly remember the Morlocks being very, very creepy and scary. Having read the full text, I still think the Morlocks are very, very creepy, but also very sad. As a child, the life of the Eloi was appealing: play all day and eat lots of fruit. Aside from, you know, the terror of what might happen at night, it looked ideal. As an adult reader, I was struck by the horror of the exact circumstances under which the Time Traveller meets Weena. (No details, because I’m still glad it came as a surprise to me.)
The entire vision of the future of humanity presented here is disturbing. There is the vacuous beauty left above ground and the terrifying existence below. No wonder the Time Traveller was delighted to find himself back at his own table. And yet, he clearly still has questions. He clearly still wants to explore. So, maybe, he even still has hope.
The narrator asks us to deny the implications of the narrative he has just recorded. It is a striking way of ending this little puzzle of a book, an appeal that seems to throw into doubt everything that we have just read. What a perverse start to a literary career!
Roger Luckhurst, Introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition
For this reading, I borrowed the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Time Machine from the library. The supporting material is excellent. The “Chronology of H. G. Wells” includes significant personal events and world events, as well as noting the publication of various influential works, giving context on multiple levels. The expanded version of the chapter “The Further Vision” is included as an appendix, as are two scientific essays published by Wells in 1891 and 1893.
Roger Luckhurst’s introduction expands on some of the ideas Wells engages with in the novel. Evolutionary theory – both biological and social – was very much in the public consciousness. Would people and society forever march toward perfection, or would both reach a zenith and then inevitably deteriorate? The utopian fiction of Bellamy and Morris get satirical jabs in the Time Traveller’s description of the future. Luckhurst provides pointers to further reading on all of these and more. I appreciated the very helpful and engaging explanatory notes, as well as the fact that the introduction begins with a note that there will be spoilers, so newcomers might want to read it as an afterword, instead.
The Reading Challenges haven’t gone so well for me the last two years. But I’ve once again succumbed to the promise of a brand new year and brand new challenges. Here’s what I’ve got lined up for 2020:
Back to the Classics is hosted by Books and Chocolate. I read two out of 12 last year (and failed to post about either one). Some of the titles I’ve picked for this year are carry-overs from last year’s list.
The Georgian Reading Challenge is hosted by Becky’s Book Reviews. The goal is a minimum of four books – fiction or non-fiction – related to the Georgian era (I’m using the 1714-1830 period – sorry, William IV). I’ve earmarked some possible titles, mostly the same as last year, since I read exactly zero books from the list in 2019.
While watching the first episode of Jamestown, my wife made a comparison to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
“I haven’t read it,” I said.
She’s often surprised by what I haven’t read. My reading history has the strangest gaps in it. Many of the books commonly assigned in high school were somehow never assigned in my classes. When I was approaching the end of high school, the school’s College Counselor suggested St. John’s College in Annapolis might suit. The school offers a single program, called the Great Books Curriculum, in which students study Greek, French, and a course of classics of Western thought; at the end, they earn a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts.
This idea was vetoed after family discussion, as I was expected to major in something more career focused.
The joke was on me, though, since my degree is a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences (my final major was actually Rhetoric, which sounds fancier than “Creative Writing”), and I still haven’t read The Odyssey. Or Animal Farm. (I read 1984 on my own the summer before I started Library School.) Or, as I’ve mentioned before, any Austen at all.
I see Camus’ The Stranger on lists of “classics you should read” all the time. I haven’t read it. But I did read The Plague for AP English. I have a vague recollection that I read it over Winter Break in order to be able to discuss it as soon as we came back in January. Festive, eh?
Actually, speaking of vague memories, I think I may have read part of Frankenstein in college, along with “selections from” Homer. I did take a pair of classes to satisfy a Western Civilization requirement, but as with many survey courses, we read bits and pieces of lots and lots and lots of things, never really getting to delve into the nuances of any one.
I’ve toyed with the idea of working through the St. John’s Reading List as a way of filling in those gaps. While I was trying to figure out a couple of unfamiliar names (there are quite a few science essays in there), I stumbled on the Classics Club Blog.
I love this.
From the site, the club basics (short version):
– choose 50+ classics
– list them at your blog
– choose a reading completion goal date up to five years in the future and note that date on your classics list of 50+ titles
– e-mail the moderators of this blog with your list link and information and it will be posted on the Members Page!
– write about each title on your list as you finish reading it, and link it to your main list
– when you’ve written about every single title, let us know!
They also have some mini-challenges and games, like the Classics Club Spin, to shake up any reading ruts.
I have been working on my list, with a start date of January 1st, 2019. And, yes, The Scarlet Letter is on there.
Are there classics you wish you’d read? What’s on your Reading Bucket List?